The Think Species
Social and Cultural Essays
CD) — Privacy advocates are responding with alarm to Amazon’s claim this week that the controversial cloud-based facial recognition system the company markets to law enforcement agencies can now detect “fear” in the people it targets.
“Amazon is going to get someone killed by recklessly marketing this dangerous and invasive surveillance technology to governments,” warned Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, in a statement Wednesday.
Amazon Web Services detailed new updates to its system—called Rekognition—in an announcement Monday:
With this release, we have further improved the accuracy of gender identification. In addition, we have improved accuracy for emotion detection (for all 7 emotions: ‘Happy’, ‘Sad’, ‘Angry’, ‘Surprised’, ‘Disgusted’, ‘Calm’, and ‘Confused’) and added a new emotion: ‘Fear’. Lastly, we have improved age range estimation accuracy; you also get narrower age ranges across most age groups.
Pointing to research on the technology conducted by the ACLU and others, Fight for the Future’s Greer said that “facial recognition already automates and exacerbates police abuse, profiling, and discrimination.”
“Now Amazon is setting us on a path where armed government agents could make split second judgements based on a flawed algorithm’s cold testimony. Innocent people could be detained, deported, or falsely imprisoned because a computer decided they looked afraid when being questioned by authorities,” she warned. “The dystopian surveillance state of our nightmares is being built in plain sight—by a profit-hungry corporation eager to cozy up to governments around the world.”
VICE reported that “despite Amazon’s bold claims, the efficacy of emotion recognition is in dispute. A recent study reviewing over 1,000 academic papers on emotion recognition found that the technique is deeply flawed—there just isn’t a strong enough correlation between facial expressions and actual human emotions, and common methods for training algorithms to spot emotions present a host of other problems.”
Amid mounting concerns over how police and other agencies may use and abuse facial recognition tools, Fight for the Future launched a national #BanFacialRecognition campaign last month. Highlighting that there are currently no nationwide standards for how agencies and officials can use the emerging technology, the group calls on federal lawmakers to ban the government from using it at all.
Fight for the Future reiterated their demand Wednesday, in response to Amazon’s latest claims. Although there are not yet any federal regulations for the technology, city councils—from San Francisco to Somerville, Massachusetts—have recently taken steps to outlaw government use such systems.
Activists are especially concerned about the technology in that hands of federal agencies such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), whose implementation of the Trump administration’s immigration policies has spurred condemnation from human rights advocates the world over.
Civil and human rights advocates have strongly urged Amazon—as well as other developers including Google and Microsoft—to refuse to sell facial recognition technology to governments in the United States and around the world, emphasizing concerns about safety, civil liberties, and public trust.
However, documents obtained last year by the Project on Government Oversight revealed that in the summer of 2018, Amazon pitched its Rekognition system to the Department of Homeland Security—which oversees ICE and CBP—over the objection of Amazon employees. More recently, the corporation has been targeted by protesters of the Trump administration’s immigration agenda for Amazon Web Service’s cloud contracts with ICE.
In a July report on Amazon’s role in the administration’s immigration policies, Al Jazeera explained that “U.S. authorities manage their immigration caseload with Palantir software that facilitates tracking down would-be deportees. Amazon Web Services hosts these databases, while Palantir provides the computer program to organize the data.”
“Amazon provides the technological backbone for the brutal deportation and detention machine that is already terrorizing immigrant communities,” Audrey Sasson, executive director of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, told VICE Tuesday. “[A]nd now Amazon is giving ICE tools to use the terror the agency already inflicts to help agents round people up and put them in concentration camps.”
“Just as IBM collaborated with the Nazis, Amazon and Palantir are collaborating with ICE today,” added Sasson. “They’ve chosen which side of history they want to be on.”
This article was originally published in 2019.
Amazon announced in mid 2020 after widespread demands they would halt law enforcement use of its facial recognition platform for one year, to curb aggressive policing in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
By Aral Bereux.
In Hangzhou, China, a high school has implemented facial recognition technology in the classroom. The system scans and stores the emotions of each student’s face every 30 seconds to determine if they are angry, fearful, confused, happy or upset. Hangzhou No. 11 High School categorizes these emotions to determine how the student is progressing.
The government-run system also scans the student’s skills and concentration. According to a local Chinese website, monitoring students’ reading and writing, raising a hand to a question and even sleeping at the desk is a good thing.
The new system is likely to be distributed throughout other Chinese high schools. The system, called the “intelligence classroom behaviour management system,” also tracks attendance. It uses facial recognition to allow the borrowing of library items or pay for canteen lunches, storing the student’s diet and book logs on a local server.
According to one school official, the “subtle facial expressions in the class” can help to “analyse the behaviour of the entire class. And, of course, this is a very efficient way to check attendance.”
In response to the attendance, the system crosschecks its database with students’ faces, making roll call unnecessary. The facial recognition system can determine who is absent in less than a minute.
Ni Ziyuan, the school’s principal, discussed the raised privacy concerns. According to Ni Ziyuan, the tracking technology saves and stores the faces on a local server rather than on the cloud. This protects the students from data breaches similar to those that occurred with the Chinese company Qihoo 360. In the instance of Qihoo 360, surveillance live streaming channels were shut down after several swimming pools and classrooms were live-streamed to the public.
Despite much criticism of putting students under constant surveillance, principal Ni Ziyuan maintains this is a positive education experience.
“With the aid of this management system, it is equivalent to having one additional teaching assistant for teachers, which can improve the pertinence of education and the effect of classroom teaching,” Ni Ziyuan says. He also explains that teachers are also being monitored to improve efficiency.
In the last few years, the Chinese have refined their Social Credit System. This system monitors individuals via CCTV in Chinese provinces and is already proving socially destructive. Using a points-based system, each citizen is awarded points. Dependent on their behaviours monitored in supermarkets, on the street and in employment, citizens are given a positive or negative ranking. Those with high points have access to decent education, health and can travel outside provinces and China. Those who have low points have these rights removed and can be forbidden from travelling or entering certain buildings. The points system carries on for generations, with some families marked as socially unacceptable – the black sheep of China.
As for surveillance in schools, China isn’t alone. In early 2019, Delhi schools in India have confirmed the use of surveillance cameras in all government schools.
Every libertarian (or classical liberal) has a list of his or her 10 greatest books. These volumes are canonical contributions that, above all others, have profoundly shaped that libertarian’s worldview. I’m no different. And I’m sure that if my list of such canonical books is compared with the list made by, say, Jeffrey Tucker or Sarah Skwire or Dan Mitchell, there would be significant overlap.
Such lists invariably feature works by scholars who are unambiguously in the libertarian pantheon. These are works by luminaries such as Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, F.A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman.
But what of books by writers who haven’t (yet) unambiguously joined these scholars in the libertarian pantheon? Books by these scholars aren’t (yet) canonical. And if you ask 20 libertarians each to present to you a list of his or her 10 favorite non-canonical books, you might well wind up with a total of 200 different books.
This great variety of influential books testifies to the richness of the libertarian scholarly tradition. It’s filled with remarkable works of scholarship that are not (yet) as widely known and read as they deserve to be.
So I here present a list — in alphabetical order according to the authors’ last names — of what are today my 10 favorite non-canonical books. Each has influenced me deeply and lastingly.
1. Tom Bethell, The Noblest Triumph (1998). This book is both a popular history of property rights and a marvelous guide to the many, and often surprising, advantages of secure property rights.
2. Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter (2007). The writing style is beautiful in its simplicity; the sweep of the material covered is enormous. Its main thesis is that careful and prudent thought — “rationality” — is a scarce good that each of us exercises only to the extent that it pays us to do so.
A key implication (which Caplan develops from Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky’s pioneering 1993 book, Democracy & Decision) is this: Because in nearly all political elections every voter understands that his or her vote will have no impact on the outcome of the election, when voting each of us is free to behave carelessly and imprudently. The same individual who is a model of judiciousness and rationality when making private decisions is likely to behave recklessly while forming political opinions and expressing these in voting booths. One of many takeaways from Caplan’s book is that the greater is the scope of government action, the more we are governed irrationally.
3. Tyler Cowen, In Praise of Commercial Culture (1998). It has long been fashionable among both conservatives and progressives to declare that free markets promote mass, bland, soul-stultifying cultural products at the expense of (in the case of conservatives) glorious high-culture products or (in the case of progressives) provocative, edgy cultural products.
Cowen’s book — smoothly blending the economic way of thinking with informed discussions of all manner of art — reveals this fashionable declaration about free markets to be bunk. Reading this book makes clear that markets not only excel at delivering consumer goods, but are also essential for the development, spread, and maintenance of almost all of the artistic products that you — no matter who you are — treasure.
4. Richard Epstein, Simple Rules for a Complex World (1995). Among the first of Hayek’s writings that I read is his short 1976 essay “The New Confusion About ‘Planning’” (available here). Hayek explains that the more complex the economy, the more futile — indeed the more dangerous — are efforts to direct it centrally. Epstein expands this insight into a brilliant book-length treatment.
5. Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (1987). Growth of the state is fueled by crises, real and imaginary. Higgs details how this(il)logic of the growth of government played out in the United States. Along the way, Higgs anticipates some of the ideas found in Caplan’s book.
6. Deirdre McCloskey’s “Bourgeois Era” trilogy (2006, 2010, 2016). Volume 1 celebrates the bourgeois virtues and shows these to be subtler and richer than most of us realize. Volume 2 explains why purely materialistic or mechanical explanations of the industrial revolution fail — often of their own internal contradictions, and always because they ignore the role of popular attitudes toward commerce and economic growth. Volume 3 ties it all together into a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. The series is grounded solidly in history and sound economic theory, and no stronger case for commercial freedom and the market order has ever been penned.
7. H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy (1926). Some will scoff at my inclusion of this book in this list. They will assert that this book is no serious work but, rather, a rollicking string of humorous observations and cynical criticisms of popular government. But they will be mistaken. While conveyed in ways that are indeed humorous — and while Mencken’s understanding of the state was certainly not romantic — his insights are unique, penetrating, revealing, and timeless.
8. Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies (1998). Postrel demonstrates vividly, in an impressively wide range of contexts, the contest between “dynamism” and “stasis.” If the dynamists succeed, so too does humanity. If the champions of stasis succeed — whether because of widespread fear, ignorance, or greed — humanity suffers greatly.
9. Russell Roberts, The Choice (3rd edition, 2005). Told as a story featuring the ghost of David Ricardo, this book is unmatched in the crucial task of revealing to skeptics of free trade the unseen benefits of such trade — and the unseen costs of protectionism.
10. Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (1996). Had Julian Simon done nothing more in his too short life other than demonstrate that the ultimate resource is the human mind, he would have deserved the Nobel Prize that he, sadly, was never awarded. Yet while Simon’s contributions are many, this one tops them all.
This thick book is chock-full of accessible data and straightforward prose that make clear that all the many worries that people have about population growth, immigration, resource depletion, and environmental degradation are either completely unwarranted or fantastically overblown. And the reason why people should quit these worries is that, in markets that are reasonably free, human creativity has a long and brilliant record not only of solving problems but also of improving humanity’s lot.
By all means study the classics in the libertarian library. But read and study many more books than these. Our library contains more than enough important books to keep you occupied for a lifetime.
By Donald J. Boudreaux.
Published under Creative Commons. Attributed to American Institute of Economic Research.